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Hide-and-seek with the Indian blue robin

Sunil Rajagopal | Updated on May 07, 2021

Long-distance traveller: A resident of the Himalayas, the Indian blue robin winters in the wet Western Ghats before returning north to breed in early April   -  WIKIPEDIA

Of elusive birds, curry leaves and afternoon reveries

* The robin is inside a curry-leaf thicket, not four feet from me. Yet, I cannot see it

* The air is so laden with the scent of crushed curry leaves that I could be in a southern kitchen

* I wait; waiting is the keystone to knowing nature

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Have you ever been alone in a forest on a summer afternoon? It is like being in a cathedral. The dark green canopy is the vaulted ceiling, parting here and there to let in slivers of light through the painted glass of leaves. Not the wispy, magical shafts of the morning that slice through remnants of the night. These are definite beams; solid blades and umbrella-like arcs. They bathe the clearing in a reverent stillness. A place where nothing moves, the wind seemingly hidden in lofty alcoves.

Where I sit is not really a primary forest. It is an overgrown grove of mango trees sloping down through bamboo thickets from unused fields to the edge of a dying stream. I can see tall grass and shrub on the stony hills beyond. The fields have not been tilled in a long time. Cows and goats are not trusted to roam free and return, with a leopard brooding. The goat tracks are deserted, but for the odd lady going down to the rocks to wash her clothes. The undergrowth is impenetrable with lantana and bamboo, through which roam chuntering flocks of shy red-billed leiothrix and puff-throated babblers. Restless flycatchers zoom up and down from favourite perches on the rock-laid path. Thick layers of wild curry-leaf thickets rise here and there.

The mango trees here are old. They are the local variety where the trees are grand and spreading and the fruits, pulpy and small. You cannot slice them like the princely hapoos and kesar. Instead, you make an incision and suck out all the juicy goodness. No one, except the shaggy Himalayan langurs, have harvested the crop in a long time. It is under one of these trees that I am hunched up; a few feet from the stream, pestered by flies interested in my sweat.

I am waiting for the Indian blue robin. It is a dazzling little chat, deep blue above and a cheerful rufous on breast and belly. A resident of the Himalayas, it winters in the wet Western Ghats before returning north to breed in early April. While on this return leg, it briefly stops over in dense, moist areas near the foothills to rest. Like here, in the Sivalik hills of Himachal Pradesh, every year.

The robin is inside a curry-leaf thicket, not four feet from me. Yet, I cannot see it. The songbird is a notorious skulker and prefers to stay in undergrowth. That bright plumage allows it to melt into the mosaic of shadows on the forest floor.

The slightest of noises are amplified in the afternoon heat: The feeble trickle of the stream skipping over stones, the buzzing of flies and the gentle flap of dry leaves flipped by the robin scouring for insects. The air is so laden with the scent of crushed curry leaves that I could be in a southern kitchen. Maybe that's why the robin likes to stop here. Strangely enough, despite this forest of curry leaves, no one nearby cooks with it.

The bird steadfastly refuses to make an appearance, sticking to the dark underbelly of the low-slung curry leaf clump. I wait. Waiting is the keystone to knowing nature. To know when to wait, where to wait and how long to wait; it takes many years to learn. And it cannot be taught. But wait one must, be part of the silence and expect nothing. While the watch is often lonely and futile, the strangest questions and the most beautiful answers may pop up. Questions, usually.

Only yesterday, I had tried to pull out a few saplings for my Delhi balcony. And made the surprising discovery that most of the curry leaf bushes this side of the valley seem to have a common root system. One doughty original plant somewhere spreading its roots out like tentacles and replicating itself and popping up wherever it found suitable. So rather than being a forest of many small trees spreading under the mangoes and bamboo, it really is just one incredibly tough organism thriving. Likely, what botanists call a clonal colony. Every bush is identical in genetic structure to the original plant. Clones. The humble curry leaf may just have found a way to be immortal. Like someone wise once said, only when we tug at a thing in isolation do we realise the interconnectedness of everything in nature.

Clonal colonies are not altogether uncommon. The most famous example is that of the Quaking Aspens of Utah, US. A 47,000-strong forest of these ancient trees, nicknamed ‘Pando’, was discovered to be a single clone connected by their root system. This ‘creature’ is now spread over 43 hectares and is believed to be more than 80,000 years old!

One moment ago, the robin was busy flipping leaves and now he is quiet. I have lost him for now. So, I look to the canopy to try and find the Asian barred owlet that usually roosts here. And sure enough, there he is, melded into the nook of a dead branch. Natty in his brown pinstripe suit, bowing stiffly and goggling at me. I’ve never seen him without a look of bewilderment on his wise, silly face.

Back to waiting in silence, my mind wanders off in random directions to questions that perhaps the owl would know answers to.

How many frogs sing in the coal black night?

How many nights does it take for one frog to sing?

How many beads of water build an angry black cloud?

How many clouds live in a cool raindrop?

How many tears swim in the salty sea?

How many seas must grieve for a tear to be shed?

How many trees rise in a brooding wood?

How many woods die for one tree to grow?

How many leaves on the crown of a mango tree?

How many trees paint the veins on a leaf?

How many cubs in the mother bear's den?

How many mothers does it take to raise one fat cub?

How many hills were cut and bled for one hard rock?

How many rocks are piled on a hill?

How many bowls to cook a heavy meal in?

How many meals can a good bowl serve?

How many men for a world to be saved?

How many worlds endure in one man's mind?

Sunil Rajagopal is an amateur birder and photographer based in Delhi

Published on May 07, 2021

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